Refugee and immigrant women and those working with them in the Fargo-Moorhead (North Dakota/Minnesota) area are working together to help refugee women overcome isolation and cultural barriers. Isolation results from being uprooted from traditional cultures that placed a strong emphasis on community and family, and from communities where women lived in close contact with extended families. Isolation intensifies from cultural differences, language barriers, and a lack of opportunities to connect with local people in the United States. Moving into a very individualistic society can also make it harder for them to recover from the trauma of experiences they suffered as refugees. An article at the student newspaper The Concordian explains:
Darci Ashe…has worked with…refugee women for more than 20 years. She is a…former longtime employee at Lutheran Social Services, and the current Director of Development at the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, or WE Center, in Fargo…In all of these roles, Ashe has been exposed to the challenges that these women face. The greatest obstacle she sees in the lives of the female refugees she works with is a sense of isolation. Many of them come from villages where family and friends lived side by side, offering companionship and sharing the burden of childbearing. When they come to America, they leave this community behind…
Jonix Owino is not a refugee, but she is familiar with the experience of transitioning to American life as an African woman. She has also seen this kind of isolation at work. After completing her undergraduate work in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, Owino moved to Fargo to obtain her master’s of sociology degree at North Dakota State University. One day after moving to Fargo, she had a conversation with a refugee woman who had been in America for more than 10 years.
“I asked her, ‘Who are your friends? What are your networks?’” Owino said. “She told me that she had nobody outside of her immediate family.”
Owino was inspired by this one woman’s experience to complete her master’s thesis on the isolation of refugee women in America. She designed a study to see if such isolation was a common theme among all refugee women in the area and interviewed ten refugee women, all 40 years or older and from different countries. She found that all of them, to some extent, were experiencing the same isolation.
While compiling her research, Owino found that some of the most common causes of this isolation were cultural differences, language barriers, and a lack of opportunities to connect with local people. Many of these women are escaping war and violence in countries that placed a very strong emphasis on community and family. “Moving into a very individualistic society can make it harder for them to recover from their very distressing lives,” she said.
For this reason, Owino and Ashe agree that women like Adde, who come to America without a spouse or children, are at an advantage. Without a husband to rely on they are forced to integrate; to receive government benefits they are required to go out, learn English, and get a job…
Even when refugee women are able to find work and some sense of community, culture shock can still prevent them from growing accustomed to their new life.
“For a lot of the women, where they’re coming from, there’s already a kind of oppression,” Ashe explains. “And so when they come to the U.S., often times women are struggling to kind of figure out how to maneuver in that more progressive atmosphere.”
In many ways, this new, progressive society can bring with it new forms of oppression. Many of the traditions and customs that these women have known their whole lives are no longer acceptable when they come to America, and they are forced to choose between carrying on a tradition that is considered inappropriate or to give up a piece of themselves… Read more here